‘I’ll Put a Girdle Round the Earth’: Art about Walking and Circles

Artists use fundamental forms, circle, square etc. The circle especially, with its long, long history as a spiritual shape.

‘Men an Tol’, near Boskednan, Cornwall, UK

Artists Rooms: Richard Long

The Richard Long exhibition at the Hepworth in Wakefield included his familiar collections of stones in circles, ovals and lines.

Richard Long: ‘Blaenau Ffestiniog Circle’, 2011. Welsh Slate

It is a wonderful light filled gallery, sitting right in the river.

The Hepworth Gallery. Wakefield. Architect: David Chipperfield, 2011

Notice how those familiar shapes recur outside, the circular tyres and the spherical ball.

The Hepworth Gallery. Wakefield. Architect: David Chipperfield, 2011. A View from the Gallery Window

Circling Around the Problem

How do we know how to understand these shapes in art? Why, for instance, do we not think that Long is trying to tell us something about Dante’s nine circles of Hell for example? Richard Long makes art about walking and Dante and Virgil walk through those circles after all.

Richard Long: ‘Concentric Days’, 1996

Answer: context and proximity. There is nothing in his work that leads the viewer to make those sorts of iconographic connections. Equally there is nothing to stop us doing so if we wish. I would think parts of the process, Day 5 for example, were hellish. Artists compose art, they put things next to each other for a purpose. The forms of that arrangement, the way they occupy the constructed space, are the essence of the art. Long places objects carefully, their equal spacing is reminiscent of the steps that make up his art, ie the walks that these arrangements refer to.

Does a Painted Circle have the Same Meaning?

In another place (National Gallery, London), in a different context, how should we understand another art work that features circular forms? Is Gerard David’s image also about a lone artist walking through what is left of the wild parts of the world?

Gerard David: ‘The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor’, 1510, Oil on Oak, 106 x 144 cm. National Gallery, London

No? How do we know that is so?

An extraordinary painting, that celebrates the richness of material objects, look at the jewellery, the tapestries and the marble. All of this for a chapel dedicated to an ascetic hermit, you can see Saint Anthony lurking in the background between the right hand pillar and female saint. 

A Ring of Hands

Even more noticeable is the ring of hands, stretching from Mary Magdalene on the right, who turns the book of Saint Barbara.

Gerard David: ‘The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor’, 1510, Oil on Oak, 106 x 144 cm. National Gallery, London. Detail 1

The Virgin Mary’s hands are interlocked (unusually) around the Christ Child, he is handing a ring to Saint Catherine who, in a beautiful bit of foreshortening is reaching out to touch the praying hands of the donor (Richard de Visch de La Chapelle).

Gerard David: ‘The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor’, 1510, Oil on Oak, 106 x 144 cm. National Gallery, London. Detail 2

That ring is the crucial image.

Gerard David: ‘The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor’, 1510, Oil on Oak, 106 x 144 cm. National Gallery, London. Detail 3

Pictorial Space

My general theme is that artists are less interested in filling their paintings with text based puzzles (see for example James Elkins: ‘Why are Our Pictures Puzzles?) and far more interested in the using the fundamental tools of image making: in particular pictorial space. This was a painting for the altar of St Catherine.

Gerard David: ‘The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor’, 1510, Oil on Oak, 106 x 144 cm. National Gallery, London

She was martyred, eventually, first by being bound to a studded wheel (that attribute is just behind her to the right) and then finally beheaded. Christ offers her a ring to mark her mystic marriage to him (she refused to submit to the Emperor Maxentius, saying that she was already a bride of Christ). David has taken the opportunity, throughout this painting to stress the circular theme:

  • the semi-circle of figures in front of us
  • the ring
  • the jewelled ornament above Mary’s head
  • the tower/ attribute of Saint Barbara (she was walled up in a tower by her father) echoed by an octagonal tower behind her
  • the cylindrical ointment jar/ attribute for Mary Magdalen
  • the circular tile decoration on the marble floor.
  • And, of course the enclosing form of the walled garden, symbol of The Virgin Mary, that surrounds this group and includes us as the figure at the other side of this circle of initiates.

The Viewer Within the Painted Space

David has positioned the viewer as an internal spectator within the group, we are either sitting, or more likely kneeling directly opposite the mother and child, a position of great honour. We do not, conceptually, see the figures from the point of view of the painted donor, he has paid for his own representation, he wants to look at it too. We see from his position kneeling in front of the actual altar.

Everything about the composition and iconography of this painting leads us back to the patron saint, to the role of the Virgin Mary in our salvation and to the inclusion of the donor in that exclusive circle. David’s role is to construct the space, not to walk about in it and report back.

This might also be the place to ask another question: what is the difference in art between a hole

Barbara Hepworth: ‘Two Forms with White (Greek)’, 1963. Guarea Wood, part painted.

Barbara Hepworth: ‘Two Forms with White (Greek)’, 1963. Guarea Wood, part painted. Detail

and a circle?

Gillian Ayres: ‘Sundark Blues’, 1994. Oil on canvas, 244 x 213 cm, tate Britain.

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2 comments
  1. Ann Marquez said:

    On the back of a sand painting made for my husband [30 years ago] by a dear Navajo artist and friend is written: “This is a picture of a Navajo boy and girl. The circle is a symbol of saying like “walking in beauty”. The plants are the four sacred plants. It stands for the four directions. It also stand for the four seasons. This is just an act of a sandpainting. Sands are all natural color.”

    As always, a very interesting post! 😀

    • What a fascinating dedication. Just after I read your reply, I happened to be reading ‘The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane and saw this:
      “The Dakotan Tribes of North America found evidence of circular forms in nature nearly everywhere, from the shapes of birds’ nests to the course of the stars. The Pueblo Indians of the American South West, by contrast tended to apprehend landscapes in rectangular terms: they found parallelograms and rhomboids to be ubiquitous.”
      He talks about the recurring unit of shape that characterises the cultural output of different cultures (not sure what they are around here these days, the crisp packet or soft drink can I expect) as well as about walking to the few wild places left across Britain.Eventually he comes to the conclusion that wildness can be found in very small as well as very large places; a great book, highly recommended.
      Thanks again for your interest and for that wonderful piece of text, I promise to sign up for the petition

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